As the last home console to bother with cartridges, the Nintendo 64 was an odd beast. The games that everyone fondly remembers (Ocarina of Time, Smash Bros., Super Mario 64, etc.) usually kept storage space on the cart, ensuring that nothing else was required in order to play. Unfortunately, not every publisher saw fit to offer this convenience; whether it was the ever-expanding game size or cost-cutting measures, saves were pushed to an exorbitantly priced “pak” that snapped into the back of the controller.
At the young age of ten, the concepts of “saving” and “loading” were alien to both myself and my parents. I certainly knew HOW to save, but I wasn’t quite sure why my progress suddenly vanished when I powered on my N64. Mario Tennis and appeared to keep track of everything I unlocked, so why did I have to restart Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater every time I sat down to play again?
Though this naive oversight led to a stack of unfinished games, I began to approach them in a different light. Instead of mourning over the lost progress, each session became a race to the finish. In the few hours I spent every day, I’d challenge myself to reach new milestones; how many tracks could I unlock in LEGO Racers before I’d have to try again tomorrow? It was a fleeting victory when I unlocked the polar ice station, basking in the lengths I traveled before the red glow went dark and scuttled my races.
When my parents finally got around to buying a PS2 for the family, my brother and I quickly understood that owning a memory card was all but vital for retaining our sanity. Instead of the short, arcade-like titles that dominated our N64 collection, we were introduced to games like Kingdom Hearts. After building the raft on Destiny Islands for what felt like the hundredth time, I finally understood that unless something changed, I would never finish the game. I presented my case to my parents, and a few days later, our problems were finally over (aside from a few heated arguments over what should stay/go once the pitiful 8 MB filled up).
Today, lost saves are almost a thing of the past. Most games automatically save to built-in hard drives, even sending copies to servers in case your console dies or you want to play on a friend’s PC. As a university student with more commitments than ever before, knowing the few hours I do squeeze in are secure brings a sense of comfort and security. Still, this level of permanence occasionally feels even more restrictive than a game that refuses to save. It’s hard to let go of my incredibly talented sniper after spending a long time in the wastelands, especially since a few games never tell you when you’re writing over your old saves until it’s too late.
Persistence is even more dogged in multiplayer games, where your progress is locked to the account you bought the game on and stored indefinitely on the game’s servers. Developers seem to recognize that this is indeed a problem, and offer “Prestige” modes that set you back to square one (with some small token to recognize you once made it to the top). There are even a few changes on the single-player front that amplifies paranoia and fear; if you die in “Ironman,” your saves are gone for good.
If Ironman and Prestige are developers dipping their toes into the destruction of permanence, roguelikes spring from total commitment. These games randomly generate everything from the path you walk to the tools at your disposal, ensuring that no two runs are the same. Because they’re designed around dumping your progress after every death, what used to be framed as a rage-inducing mistake turns into an adventurous journey into the unknown, a feature that dares players to step out of their comfort zones.
While the finality of death in Spelunky is remarkable, we shouldn’t need games forcing us into risks when we can take our own chances and rewind to the beginning on our own accord. It was tough to abandon the Skyrim character I spent 100+ hours pouring care into, but if I hadn’t wiped him, I probably wouldn’t have had much motivation to pick it back up (riding around in an open world as the Strongest Guy Alive has its moments before it sinks into the mundane). Any significant save can be replicated by numerous online generators, if need be; the only thing you miss out on by clutching onto your old saves is a chance to try something new.
You’ll never quite replicate that first moment when you popped in Final Fantasy X or The Witcher 2, but that shouldn’t keep you from revisiting one of your favorites with a clean start. Throwing your hard-earned accomplishments to the dirt might seem foolish, but once they’re out of the picture, you might just relish your newfound sense of freedom.